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A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
by Dr. Robert Crouse
 

"O woman, great is thy faith; be it unto thee as thou wilt."  

In our Gospel lessons for these Lenten Sundays, we hear a great deal about devils. 

Last Sunday, we heard about Jesus being "led up by the spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil." (Matthew 4.1) In today's Gospel, the Canaanite woman implores Jesus to save her daughter, who"is grievously vexed with a devil." In next Sunday's Gospel, Jesus is accused of casting out devils "through Beelzebub, the prince of the devils." (Luke 11.15) The message of Lent seems much concerned with devils, and with what can and should be done about them. 

But what, really, are we to make of such stories as these? Who, or what, are these devils? In the Bible and in religious literature and art, both Christian and non-Christian, they seem to have a prominent place; but for many modern readers, I suspect, these old stories seem very strange. Talk about devils seems weird and occult, and even superstitious. Devils seem to be nothing more than products of an unhealthy imagination or characters in rather unpleasant fairy-tales. Sensible, modern people are not inclined to take them very seriously. 

But this is really no matter of fairy-tale and superstition, and our Gospel lessons should remind us that it is a grave mistake to underestimate the reality and power of devils. No doubt our vocabulary in such matters has changed a good deal since ancient times, but the realities of spiritual life remain much the same. The devils are very much with us still, around us and within us. Basically, devils are wicked, unclean, perverse spiritual powers, or perverse spiritual principles and ideals, by which we are constantly tempted, and often governed. To be "vexed by a devil" means to have one's will fixed and focused upon some spiritual perversion. It is to have one's personality wholly absorbed with some worldly lust, some idle curiosity, some vain ambition. It is to have one's will fixed upon some finite good, as though it were divine. It means to be devoted to some false god, devoted to a worldly idol of one sort or another. 

Spiritual perversion is not just a mistake; it's the willing of a fantasy, the willing of a lie. And he who wills a lie is possessed, consumed and incapacitated by that lie, both mentally and physically. We do, of course, make mistakes and we are, of course, troubled by all sorts of accidents and problems in the ordinary course of the natural world. To be possessed by a devil is something quite different from that. To be possessed is to will a lie, to make up and love a lie, as though it were the truth. Every one of us is vulnerable to such pretense in many more or less subtle forms. 

In today's Gospel story, the Canaanite woman begs Jesus to deliver her daughter, who is "grievously vexed by a devil." In the Gospel stories, details are always significant, and in this story, it is particularly significant that the petitioner is a Canaanite. The Canaanites, as you will remember, were the old pagan population of Palestine, whom the Israelites tried to expel when they took possession of their Promised Land. Those Canaanites who remained, remained as despised outcasts. Thus, the Canaanite woman is as far as possible from having any claim upon the "children's bread," any natural right in the nation of Israel, the commonwealth of God. But she comes, nevertheless, in humility and trust: "The little dogs," she says, those who have no rights, "eat the crumbs which fall from their master's table." And the grace of God, unmerited by any natural claims, is not withheld: "O woman, great is thy faith; be it unto thee as thou wilt." This Canaanite woman is the symbol of all of us, who have no natural claims upon God's favour. Jesus' gift to her stands for the free, unmerited grace of God. 

"O woman, great is thy faith." It is only in relation to faith that his grace of healing comes. That is to say, it is only in the recognition of the true and living God that we are delivered from the false gods, those fantasies which are our devils. We can perhaps cast out one devil in favour of another, but that is no deliverance. As next Sunday's Gospel explains, 

When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out; and when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished; then goeth he and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. (Luke 11.24-26) 

It is only faith, only the recognition of the true and living God, which brings deliverance. Simply to cast out one false god, is to invite another in. Disillusionment with one set of lies or false gods is not enough. The empty soul is no solution since it only invites the bitter devils of cynicism to come and dwell therein. Deliverance comes only as our souls are filled and our minds renewed with God. We must be nourished and nurtured by his living Word. 

Lent is a season of renewal and reformation: "Be not conformed to this present age, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind." (Romans 12.2) It is a time for the casting out of devils, the unmasking of the perversions of our spirits, a time for the nurturing of our souls by the word of God revealed in Christ our Lord. It is a time of death and resurrection. 

We come as the Canaanite woman came, without any particular merit, without any natural claim upon the grace of God. But welcome, nevertheless, with faith and hope in the abundant charity of that grace. Perhaps a crumb is all we seek; but he calls us to be his table guests, to share the rich banquet of his Word. 

Amen. +